Mansfield readies for changes on police force

Municipal officials divided over decision to replace police chief with civilian administrator

By: William Wichert
   MANSFIELD — In a few weeks’ time, the township police force will look a little different, and officers are bracing themselves for the changes ahead.
   Over the next month, Police Chief James Humble, who retired this week, is set to be replaced with a public safety director, and a promotional exam will be held to name four sergeants from the municipality’s 12 patrol officers.
   "It’s a big change for everybody," said Patrolman Brian Gerber, one of the officers planning to take the exam. "Everybody’s hoping it’s a positive change."
   The effectiveness of these changes, however, depends on who’s talking. Most agree that the upcoming exam will create a much-needed rank structure, but officers and municipal officials are still divided over the decision to replace Chief Humble with a civilian administrator.
   The Township Committee moved closer in that decision last week with the unanimous introduction of an ordinance creating the position of director of public safety. The ordinance will be voted on for final approval at the committee meeting on Feb. 8.
   Mayor Art Puglia said by phone on Monday that the municipality currently has three candidates vying for the job. The ordinance states that the new public safety director will serve until the end of the year, and Mayor Puglia said he did not know how long the director would stay in place after that.
   The ultimate goal of the Township Committee, officials have said, is to select a new police chief from the four officers who are promoted to sergeant later this month. The governing body approved a resolution last week appointing the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police to conduct these exams.
   "We have a lot of good men to fill (the chief’s) spot, but we have no rank structure right now," said Mayor Puglia. "I think we’re going in the right direction. We’re going to get four sergeants and we’ll go from there."
   Over the last several years, rank structure in the Police Department has been held up by turnover on the township force as well as on the Township Committee itself, according to both Chief Humble and Mayor Puglia.
   The chief said he had appointed a sergeant and a lieutenant years ago, but when those men retired, he never refilled their positions because the patrol officers at the time had not served for very long. Until a few years ago, most officers only stayed in Mansfield for between six months and one year before moving on to higher-paying jobs in other police departments, Chief Humble said.
   In 2004, when the Police Department finally included officers who had served for more than five years, Chief Humble approached the municipality’s solicitors with the idea of creating a promotional exam to build a rank structure, but he said the idea fell on "deaf ears."
   Mayor Puglia said he was not aware of the chief’s original request, noting that three Township Committee members resigned during that time period, including the police commissioner. "It was really up to the chief to do (the promotions)," the mayor said.
   Chief Humble said he could have promoted some of the patrol officers, but he chose not to do so without an official exam in place.
   "Your best buddies will stab each other in the back for that position. That’s what I didn’t want to see," said Chief Humble. "The best man took a test. The best man is being promoted."
   The exam should ensure that all officers get a fair chance of moving forward in their careers, said Patrolman Gerber. After joining the township force in 1997, Patrolman Gerber said he has never considered making that career in any place other than Mansfield.
   "I kind of found my home here," he said.
   Patrolman Gerber said he does not think the appointment of a public safety director will negatively affect the police operations in the township, as long as that person exhibits the leadership qualities that Chief Humble is known for. Without a high-ranking superior who can communicate with the township officials, residents, and officers, "you’re not going to work as a team," he said.
   For Patrolman Bill Stricker, his mind is clear: the township Police Department needs to be led by a chief, not a civilian. "(A chief is) an actual police officer. He can effect arrests," said Patrolman Stricker. "That’s an asset in a small department, if you have a working officer."
   Patrolman Stricker, who joined the police force in 1978 as a part-time officer, said current patrol officers may need some administrative training to assume the chief’s responsibilities, but they can handle the day-to-day police work.
   Although township officials have said they will appoint a new police chief after a certain amount of time, Patrolman Stricker pointed out how that decision may not be up to them, but instead to the people holding public office in the years ahead.
   "My thinking is (the public safety director is) the wrong way to go at this point in time," he said. "But they got their minds made up."